Sources of Knowledge 11th Annual Forum Fathom Five National Marine Park: Expectations, Reality, and Where to Go from Here

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Submitted by John Bainbridge

The Sources of Knowledge Forum (SOKF) is an unique Canadian institution located in Tobermory. It is devoted to sharing with the public all that is known about the Saugeen Peninsula, its people and the lakes surrounding it. The area is exceptional as it contains animals, plants and an ancient forest not found anywhere else and, accordingly, it attracts scientists from all over the world. It is the role of the SOKF to make that research available first to the people who live here and then to the general public. Accordingly, since 2009, the SOKF has put on an annual weekend event for the public to highlight an aspect of the work on the peninsula and the adjoining lake being carried on by researchers. 

The Saugeen Peninsula separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay. These two expanses of water cover a freshwater ecosystem based on 420 million year old dolomite rock formations, a fascinating variety of fauna and flora and 22 shipwrecks. In 1972 the Province of Ontario delineated a small zone of this marine area and established the Fathom Five Park as an underwater park to protect the wrecks and to promote the area as a diving destination. In 1987, Fathom Five was slightly enlarged and re-born as a National Park covering an area of 114 km2. It became the first aquatic park to come under the stewardship of Parks Canada’s national marine conservation area program. As a marine conservation area, Fathom Five was viewed as a prototype for future parks of its type but it is still renowned for its shipwrecks and diving opportunities. 

The success of Fathom Five has shown that this type of marine protected area is a viable concept for Canada and the idea continues to grow. For example, in the two years since 2016 the number of visitors has grown by 22 per cent from 342,605 to 419,211. Inevitability, the demands of tourism and the Parks Canada mandate of conservation of the aquatic environment and the islands within it has created tension.

Lake Huron, and the marine park within it, is a dynamic system. As residents know, the water level goes up and down like a yo-yo. In 1986/87, the lake level was so high that there was significant shore line damage and much public concern. Twenty-four years later a lobby group of more than 30,000 members was formed called “Stop the Drop.” They wanted government to do something to bring the low water levels back up. The difference between the 1986/87 high and the 2009 low was approximately 6.5ft. Given that all residents of the peninsula are in some way connected to and affected by the lake it is appropriate to learn what we can about it. 

This year, 32 years after the establishment of the National Marine Park, the Forum will focus on whether the expectations for the conservation area have been met. SOKF will bring in researchers who have studied aspects of marine management such as the commercial fishery, who can talk about practices in other jurisdictions, and who can describe the state of the lake’s ecosystem and fish migration patterns. There will be a discussion on the importance of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in managing marine ecosystems. Given the recent discovery of the Franklin Expedition’s ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus and the essential role Inuit traditional knowledge played in locating them, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is starting to assume its proper status in environmental management decisions. Finally, Parks Canada has established a Fathom Five Strategy Team headed by Sean Liipere, to create a renewed vision to guide the park management into the future. Sean will be hosting a public workshop on the last day of the Forum to seek the public’s views on the park’s future.

A more detailed program and registration information will be available at the end of February 2019. The dates of the Forum are May 3th to 5th 2019.